Sunday, December 20, 2009

Stollen Moment

Of all the Christmas culinary traditions my mom has taught me--homemade biscotti, stuffed escarole, cinnamon buns--there's one that just never stuck. Despite not having an ounce of German blood, my mom loves stollen. I know, you're thinking, "What the hell is that?" Until recently, I honestly couldn't tell you much more than that it's a bread-like loaf filled with candied fruit and covered in so much powdered sugar that it almost looks like petrified wood. Mom buys herself a stollen from a bakery every Christmas, has a slice or two (my Dad, sister and I never touch the stuff) and then I guess she tosses the rest.

I started thinking about stollen this holiday season, and wondered what it was that my mom loves so much about it. I respect her taste; when she says something's good, it usually is. I looked through my cookbooks and found a recipe in The Joy of Cooking that didn't list any wacky ingredients. Pretty much a German version of pannetone, which I love. So as a surprise for Mom this year, I decided I'd make her a stollen. (Actually, I made six stollens--the recipe yield was huge. Moms going to be eating this stuff 'till July.)

I went with a recipe from a new book on artisan baking, figuring the detail would be helpful. Granted, the detail also meant I'd be involved with the project for the better part of 24 hours, but much of that time was unattended while the dough proofed. Turns out stollen's really not that complicated. It's a sweet yeast bread, with some lemon zest and cinnamon worked into the dough. It's studded with chopped bits of dried apricots, dark and golden raisins, and dried cranberries (which soaked overnight in dark rum and simple syrup; see picture above), plus some slivered almonds. It also has a ribbon of lemony almond paste running through it, a nice little surprise when you later cut a slice. I brushed each loaf with butter and sprinkled it with granulated sugar when it was just out of the oven. The recipe instructs you to then dust it with powdered sugar, but I was having visions of petrified stollen, so I skipped it.

Mom will be the real judge (since I have zero basis for comparison), but I actually think this turned out well. I toasted a slice this afternoon and ate it next to the fire as the snow swirled outside. Sure, the cozy environment helped, but I had to admit, the stollen was tasty. Heavier than pannetone, yes. But more substantial and complex, with a decent crust and a richness, thanks to the almond paste (see this rundown of international holiday sweets to put stollen in some context). I'll report back with Mom's review, so stay tuned.--S

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Holiday Cookie Bonanza

Last December I did some holiday baking, but was a little too preoccupied with wedding planning to jump into a full day, multi-recipe extravaganza. Not this year! Last weekend, my friend Kate and I churned out three varieties of holiday cookies in a tradition that I'm so glad we resurrected.

On the menu: one repeat from two years ago, Trios. They're just so cute, we couldn't resist. Definitely the labor-intensive entry in the field, but they're worth it. And as Kate pointed out, once you have the right tools (e.g., the right size cylander-shaped object to bore holes for the jelly; a tiny spoon to hold 1/8 of a teaspoon of jam), things go fairly quickly. Making them made me miss Gourmet's always gorgeous holiday cookie spread. I keep thinking the editors probably had their December package all ready to go when the magazine folded in October... and that it's probably lurking on some discarded computer's hard drive.

But onto the new! We went with two cookies Kate had spotted on other food blogs. First up: Sparkling Ginger Chip Cookies from 101 Cookbooks. True, Heidi Swanson's instructions are a tad on the persnickety side (come on--1/2 cup turbinado sugar for the cookie dough, and then an additional 2/3 cup fine grain natural cane sugar--sifted--for the exterior? who sifts sugar?). But I think we have to let her OCD slide here, because these cookies are fabulous. Definitely a sophisticated holiday sweet, with bittersweet chocolate, ground ginger, unsulphured molasses and grated fresh ginger. But so tasty! (They're pictured above, before going into the oven, and at the top of this post, after baking.)

The other recipe, for Maple Cookies from Simply Recipes, was a lot more straightforward. It was almost like a chocolate chip cookie in dough consistency (below) and technique, plus a nice glug of maple syrup (we used Stonewall Kitchen Grade A) and chopped walnuts. The smell of these babies baking was fantastic, so warm and delicious--like pancakes, actually. And the finished cookies? Excellent. Towards the end of the bowl, I guess the batter got a bit thin, so some cookies turned out sans nuts--which is a bit of a disappointment, because the nuts really compliment the maple flavor (and add texture, obviously). But the nut-less cookies would probably work nicely if you felt like having a maple-vanilla ice cream sandwich.

So there you have it. Happy baking!--S